29th July 2018 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the agency that will be remembered in history for its part in the first steps of the exploration of space and especially for its role in the Moon landings. As the Financial Times columnist Tim Hartford observes, the foundation of NASA left another agency without a remit, allowing it to act with imagination and freedom.
The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has been founded on 7th February 1958, and may have acted as though its younger sister had taken its role and stolen its future, instead its newfound flexibility allowed for extraordinary innovation. It was ARPA, as it became known, that created the connection between the mainframe computers on American college campuses in 1969. The ARPAnet was the first step in the establishment of the Internet. Had it not been for the creation of NASA, the capacity for communication and the sharing of information we now take for granted may have taken years longer, or may have developed in an altogether different way.
On the day NASA was established, the staff at the new agency understood their purpose, the Soviet Union had lanched its first Sputnik satellite in October 1957 and the Americans knew they were engaged in a space race. On the day NASA was launched, the staff at ARPA cannot have imagined how their future would unfold, or what they might achieve.
Perhaps if the ARPAnet had unfolded in a different way, or had progressed at a different speed, the world would be a different place from the one it has become. Perhaps if the Internet had been a place where agencies ensured a civilised and truthful discourse, there would not be the hatred that now permeates many of online exchanges.
Fate seems sometimes to hang on very thin threads, the slightest move can send the future in a different direction. Perhaps there was a point in its evolution where the Internet may have taken a direction other than the one it followed, perhaps it may have assumed the atmosphere of a vast library where people who were experts in their field would have shared their knowledge and insights. Of course, the possibilities of the good and the life-enhancing remain, but where comments on a page are enabled, there seems too often the presence of the trolls and the irrational. It didn’t have to turn out the way it did, perhaps it will take a new turn.
Had NASA not been established sixty years ago today, I might not have written this at all.